New Year’s Eve. As expected, we get carried away, as expected. You’re even forgiven, grudgingly, if you happen to be the kind that just goes curiously blind in stubborn entreaties, louder by the bottle, gregarious, needy, and repetitive. Again, as expected, it’s the type that tells you some vague story, back from a time long dead-past, in a nostalgic present only he wants to shag. A melancholic monster of memory. At once tender and repulsive. Like a barfly, but positively deluded, in an unstoppable confessional mode.
At first hearing it’s even touching, amusing, in some affectionate brotherly camaraderie. But after an hour it’s a matter of life and death. Pure drivel. Nauseous, its death by wordy-strangulation, one gibberish bark after another. The story progresses nowhere with an increasing sense of accusatory recurrence, as he senses your impatience, where you just hang on, held hostage, hoping it’s the final utterance before he pronounces the vital elusive point on a grand climactic hurrah.
So you can both depart in honor.
But there’s no such flourish. At this stage the verbal tedium is plain menacing. Vapid, merciless, demonic. How do you get out of this sticky little web without defacing his face? Your only rescue is cold turkey. That’s what you hope. He’s been passing out every few seconds trying to thread an imaginary story backed up by an increasingly demented anecdote. By now the pattern is volatile.
The words have become guttural sounds; sloppy, wheezy, yelling out his own exasperation, because either I can’t get it or he can’t hear it himself. The booze fuels, the mouth spurts, the brain sputters, breaks and restarts. If there’s a mind at work it’s been fired. The tongue struggles. But it motors on, relentless.
Cold turkey’s here, but he warms up ever more. The heat blazes. Wisdom’s delusional. Judgment a failure. I’ve quite a long ear, and a willing eye. But this is a drag. The ecstasy peaked, it’s got nowhere to climb but dip and drown. It evens out the odds. Oddly enough, we resist being level headed, even if level-headedness means less or no-headaches. But we like headaches. Along with frequent heartaches. We can talk about it. Dramatize it. Glorifying in gory details.
On the other end, the silence in the void is loud, and unwelcome. The open gap in-between two-breaths is a chasm instantly abridged. Vacuums are dangerous to the suggested ambience, vibe-threatening. Forcefully refilled. Peace is war. Tranquility a threat. Change a sham. Truth a lie. The drama, real. Participation is a must. Noncooperation, violent
The good news is eventually all things must pass-out. Aptly. Timely. Biologically. Naturally. And all things must wake up. Luckily. Fortunately. Bewilderingly.
He passes-out and I wake up. Thankful, alive, grateful to every single merciful relief.
It was dawning when I left the reverie along the banks. A thick fog shrouds the river. The Ganga is a ghost in the mist. I wanted to dip-in, get baptized for no reason. Why not? The river’s sacred. The water’s holy. Looking for a reason seems desperate. Inane. Useless. Like my passive-aggressive drunk.
I stand by the river’s edge. I step in the shallows, fingering the water, scooping a palmful. My face feels refreshed. But it’s got the chills. I get cold feet, and stand gazing, buying time to warm up the flesh; following the river’s hazy course, watching an apparition, gauging a flow beyond any grasp. A mesmerizing deluge. Engaging. Hallucinatory.
The floating mists adds to the alternating mood. Background’s surreal. The surface tells you nothing. Where birds of water dive in there are a few wrinkles. The ferry boats manage bigger ripples. That’s about it, as the placid calmness resurfaces, reclaiming tranquility, stilling the faintest sound.
There’s no knowing the river. The river knows. And the river decides who knows what it knows. Your choices are either to wait and watch, or take a bath. If at all the river lets you know anything, it’s still only a witnessing pact between you and the river. All that you know is that you know nothing, and that’s knowing quite a lot.
Tranced-out, I gingerly toe-in, buoyed by a boisterous fellowship of early arrivals; South-Indian Brahmins, uncanny in their clean shaven heads, and dangling Sikkha ponytails. I’ve half a mind to grow one myself, with forehead Treepun-Tilak, the body-thread (Janayow), Lungi-clad and ring-fingered. It’s already catching up; this Brahmin look is a rave among visitors from abroad. It’s a sight, Brahmins quizzically staring at Brahmin-like non-Brahmins. Hindu or heathen, the gods have an ironic sense of humor. In full display. Everyday.
Water’s still chilled. I go under, come above and spring out. In three shakes of a local goat’s tail, the holy bath is consummated. It’s a reviving shiver. Meanwhile my fellows of the bath are really praying, bathing, shampooing, soaping, scrubbing, oiling. I gawk at them. I become un-Himalayan, belying my mountainous origin, cowering in mild cold, in awe of the zest and zeal with which my bathing-companions treat the river.
My river is not their river. Their river is not my river. And the river is not our river. One river, many relationships. It’s a healthy conundrum.
I rub the solidified coconut-oil plastic-bottle, glance at an unread copy of yesterday’s Hindustan Times; the first day of the rest of days has begun. Morning bells are ringing, literally, and in all earnestness, rather auspiciously. Every single year has been a gift. All the experiences have been life. And if you’re still here, you must acknowledge its reality, and recognize the powers that shaped it so. The force is with us if we are with the force. I’m not a Star Wars aficionado, but long may the force be with us all, shaking up that deep slumber.
As if on cue life awakens. Early risers walk, jog or saunter along the many paths on the huge levees. Contemplative, hopeful, new beginnings are here. A restart button's appeared. The day will crowd, with cameras seeking the perfect shot. The temples come to life. Sipping chai, making small talk, smoking chillums, trailing grand old Sadhus, or making way for monkeys, buffaloes, hounds and their ilk, who enjoy a tolerated right of way, and a considerate life.
Everybody’s exploring. Eyeing. Touching. Tasting. Hearing. Feeling this. Sensing that. Man’s old yearning continues with renewed vigor. The hunter still hunts. The gatherer still gathers. And wanderers wander. Probing. Searching. Exploring. Seeking. Waiting. No one knows what, why, when, where, and/or how. But everyone assumes. It’s here. It’s there. It’s somewhere. It’s everywhere. That thing that will put an end to all things. The vagueness becomes the great glue that binds us all, making everything stick, even if it’s just some shit on a stick. And so often it is just that, some shit on a stick.
So the searchers search. Wandering on. Stopping a while when something worthwhile crops up, and moving on again. That’s pretty much the story, whichever way you spin the yarn, it’s still being spun. Lost causes attract, and we’re clueless rebels staging meaningless revolutions. So meaningless it has no choice but to become meaningful. Like a dog’s bark, a bird’s song, a fish’s swim, and a man’s search for himself.
Withdrawing within without withdrawing without, in the most nonsensical, whimsical, and bizarrely absurd sense.
But I’m going to recap. See what I can conjure from the end of days, as the occasion began to gather momentum and I’d been somewhat apprehensive. But there was nothing to get anxious about. As the sun set and the midnight eve began to race fast, I lost an appointment with a bunch of Canadians. We’d met at the summit of Everest, and grown fond of the little café situated at an altitude of some sixty-five languid steps up above the river’s bank on Shivala Ghat, flanked by the red flagged Hanuman Mandir.
But they weren’t there, at this elite eatery run by a Japanese woman who’s now wife to a local Varanasi man. The French-speaking Canadians had told me to come there, where we’d supper, and keep each other celebratory company, and perhaps toast some Indian booze. I went to Mona Lisa restaurant. No one. I walked into Shiva Café German Bakery. Nothing. Checked into Anjali South Indian Fast Food Café. Still nothing. Just more locals and some tourists; pairs of couples, ragtag motley crews, bedraggled loners, Japanese hippies and Korean pop-star lookalikes. Hanging around. Looking around. Trying to spot anything moving faster than the usual pace. I gave up the search. This touristic part, called the Bengali Tola, is a zigzag maze of crisscrossing gullies, alleys, and really narrow corridors, like all of Kasi this side of the river, the peopled-west.
You could walk around with the latest GPS gadget in your palms and still get lost. Not that I care; so many have found themselves when lost. Literally. And otherwise.
So I went to my dig. The Sona Hotel. I walked into five red plastic tables and twenty empty red chairs. The owner wasn’t around. As usual, he was loitering, making his ritual roundabouts in the endless channels. I sit and Facebook. He’s back, chewing and gurgling a mouth full of salivated Paan, the legendary Benarasi Wallah. Here, when men talk, Amitabh Bachchan comes to mind. Just go back to that Paan song and picture Vijay delivering the early beginnings of Bol Bachchan.
My response veers to and fro; from annoyance to fascination and back and forth. Never a dull conversation, even if all he’s saying is “Sho Toonaaite Party Hashppy Newsh Ears Yaar.”
He’s a jovial chap, my slobbered hotelwallah. I skipped the usual fare and pamper myself with the Maharaja Thali. Two rotis, one paneer curry, one yellow dal, one mixed veg., half a plate of rice, one papad, and now that I think about it, I didn’t get the one-curd that comes in that platter. I’m gonna remind him when I go back. He’s not getting away curd-free. Not when it’s a 100 Rupee Maharaja Thali. When I made the order, he’d smiled at the bigger meal, “Hmm. Sho Today Ish Speshaal Big Thali.”
He didn’t say it was Number 1. Gotta thank and count every small mercy coming your way. The last supper was a good supper. An Israeli I’ve come to know came in and hung out. She was sick, weak from belly aches, body aches, headaches, the cold, the flu and the cough. Delhi-Belly is an indiscriminate rite, way more tolerable than the Indian Syndrome. If you get hit by the Indian Syndrome you go nuts. There are many tales on the traveler’s circuits. Some of it make the headlines. Mostly people just disappear. Into thin air. Gone. Poof. It’s a lot of things- religious, spiritual, cultural and what have you not. But nothing criminal. No foul play. People leave behind their belongings- clothes, money, passports et al and vanish.
But her Delhi Belly is bad. She can’t get worse. I tried making her feel better, with some diverting talk about matters far away from us in real time and space. Any comforting refuge is welcome. So we delude ourselves with yet more hope, expectation and the perennial promise. The delusion works, on a mundane level, relatively speaking. Plus you don’t wanna darken the coming New Year with ill-timed detachments. We walk out and I wish her well, and we depart. She needed all the energy she could conserve, as she’s making a bus-trip to Kathmandu in a day or two. I hope she makes it. When the body suffers, the mind’s even more vulnerable.
I walk out to the river banks, and a cup of chai and some time spent with gypsy-minstrels singing religious songs, decide to spend the coming wee hours with the dead.
At the Burning Ghats the fires are raging, all the more warm in the cold of the night. Five pyres blazing red against the rising mist. I sit and watch, lost in the sights, as my contemplative thoughts get torched and burnt along with the burning barbeque of the dead.
What seemed like a forlorn gathering stirred with life at the celebratory fireworks in the distant sky. As tiresome as it sounds, we exchanged greetings; distant visitors, curious onlookers, homeless locals, and the bereaved, all welcoming the momentary warmth, as honestly as the fleeting moments could allow. That led to idle talk. The usual queries, sounding stranger and stranger still, in the face of those the mortal bonfires. It must have been the fire’s intense warmth, or my own flames raging inside, for I decided I needed to cool down.
That it was a good time, probably the best, to take a bath in the Ganga. That meant waiting a while, and meanwhile, the fires were burning the pyres ferociously, as if driven by an insatiable need to consume itself, even as it provided an absorbing spectacle of sorts with its crackling sparks, changing hues, and fiery warmth. Death, it seems, is yet another display of life, burning, transforming, changing, and expressing itself, through a thousand things that are inexpressible, including this elusive-self, and that seemed to be the point, if there is anything pointing to anything at all.